Animas, Cotton City, and Playas — remnants of the Westward Ho! movement

The Chihuahuan Desert. Photo by Carla DeMarco.
The Chihuahuan Desert

Cotton and cowboys, cacti and copper, cavalry and coyotes, chile and coatimundi - and the Chiricahua Apaches. All these help characterize the most southwestern part of Hidalgo County, called the Bootheel of New Mexico, where you will find the small communities of Playas, Animas, and Cotton City.

The area’s history is characterized also by the rustlers, thieves, and bandits . . . the Spaniards, Mexicans, and settlers . . . and also by the miners seeking gold, silver, and copper who explored this land to find fortune. Instead, all too often they encountered destitution and sudden death. And sometimes torture.

The Westward Ho! movement had brought the settlers here. Few stayed. The land was harsh; the Apaches, unforgiving. Those who remained were to become as tough as the Chihuahuan Desert and as stoic as the mountains that ring the area. The settlers became ranchers, bringing in cattle and barbed wire. They became farmers, tapping the underground waters, making the desert fertile.

It’s easy for you to visit this desert land of bull snakes and bull-riders. Whether you are traveling east or west on Interstate 10, turn off on Exit 11 and continue south on N. M. 338 for about half an hour to reach Cotton City first and then Animas. If you’re traveling from El Paso, drive west on N. M. 9, past Columbus and Hachita. You will cross the Continental Divide two times as you snake around mountains and hills before you reach the Playas turnoff, and one more time before you reach Animas.

The original Playas, a settlement along the Southern Pacific Railroad, has vanished. The current question is whether the current-day Playas will vanish or become a ghost town. This "new" Playas was developed by the Phelps Dodge Mining Company in 1975 to provide rental homes and amenities for the 400+ employees of their then newly-built Playas Copper Smelter. Unexpectedly the smelter closed in the fall, 1999. All Playas residents were to vacate the premises by June l, 2000. Now, as you drive westward towards Animas, you will note that the rosy glow from the smelter’s fires is no longer seen in the southern evening sky.

But about 15 miles away from the Playas turnoff on N.M. 9, you will see Animas, which means "lost souls" or "spirit." Local lore has it that Animas may be built upon an ancient Indian village. At least one source indicates that in 1753 the Spanish, in their quest for copper, gold, and silver, settled the site of present-day Animas.

Today, Animas is an unincorporated village of about 300 persons. There is no "town" in the traditional sense. There are no sidewalks nor shops. Animas consists primarily of the school district (with some of the longest bus rides in the state), a church, a post office, a telephone office, a mercantile, an auto service, and one cafe. Nearby is a convenience store with a bar, gas, and sundries. The nearest large grocery store is in Lordsburg some 30 miles from Animas.

What is not obvious to the traveler is that Animas is a community in the true meaning of the word. It is the home of widespread families who guard their privacy, but who are bound together in friendship. Animas is reminiscent of a younger America, where the whole village turns out to raise a child, to celebrate a wedding, or to mourn the loss of one of its own. Norman Rockwell should be alive to paint such occasions, often held at the Animas Community Center.

After stopping at the Panther Tracks café for a friendly chat with the locals, you may want to gaze about outside. On most days you will be able to see 30-50 miles in any direction. To the south lay the Animas Mountains and the Republic of Mexico; to the west, the Peloncillo Mountains and the State of Arizona; to the east, the Big and Little Hatchet Mountains; and northeastward, the Pyramid Mountains.

As you drive north from Animas to meet I-10, you will note Cotton City, renamed in 1949 from Valley View. It, too, is small, with its one grocery store and three churches. The most successful business at Cotton city is a large geothermal greenhouse where roses are grown and distributed regionally, if not nationally. A farming area, Cotton City’s buildings indicate the changes of favored crops. Two cotton gins, a bean factory, and a chile plant - each have opened and closed throughout the years.

As you continue on, be conscious of the history you are leaving. Your inner ear may hear the rumble of a cattle drive, the whistle of a locomotive, the scream of a far-off bobcat.

Or, you may feel the presence of the Clanton outlaw gang hiding in nearby caves and canyons. Perhaps you will catch a glimmer of Geronimo’s shadow as he gallops towards Mexico seeking revenge for the deaths of his wife, his mother, and his children.

You may see that "visiting" Mexican, sitting tall in the saddle - but on a steer - as he rustled cattle. Years ago, he evaded local ranchers for a long time because they were looking for the prints of a man on horseback.

You might even hear the sounds of fiddlers playing at a square dance in full swing.